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Influencers with Andy Serwer: Nicholas Kristof

In this episode of Influencers, Andy speaks with New York Times columnist and 'Tightrope" author, Nicholas Kristof about the presidential election, inequality in America, and why he says Facebook brings out the worst in us.

Video Transcript

ANDY SERWER: America feels like it's on edge, as the last days of the presidential race play out against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic. Differences get magnified and cool heads are hard to find. Nicholas Kristof knows the country's dividing lines well. He's written for the "New York Times" for over 35 years, but grew up in a small town in Oregon, where many support Donald Trump.

In his latest book, "Tightrope-- Americans Reaching for Hope," Kristof shows how rising inequality had pushed people of all stripes to the brink even before the current crisis. I sat down with Kristof to discuss how we got to this precarious moment, what might happen on election day, and what gives him reason for hope.


Hello, everyone. Welcome to the "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. And welcome to our guest, Nicholas Kristof, "New York Times" columnist, author of many books, most recently "Tightrope-- Americans Reaching for Hope," which he co-wrote with his wife and former "Times" reporter Sheryl WuDunn. The couple also made a documentary based on the book. Nick, nice to see you.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Good to be with you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: So so much to talk about, and I have to say it's really great to chat with you. I've been reading your columns for years and years, so it's great to get a chance to sit down and talk.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: It's always kind of funny when people in the news business kind of know each other by by lines or appearance. We kind of feel like we know each other, but don't actually interact that much.

ANDY SERWER: Right. Let's start off and talk about the election, which I guess is topic A at this point. President Trump is down in the polls. And I think "538" gave him a 12% chance of winning.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Does he have a path to compete or to win at this point, Nick? Look, after what happened in 2016, I think it would only be prudent to say, yeah, he's got a path. And whether it's a 12% likelihood of victory or in the betting markets, it's about a 40% chance-- but you know, I don't know exactly what that number is.

But yeah, there is a possibility that things will come together. I think it's unlikely. I think that it's more likely that Joe Biden will win in a landslide than that Trump will win at all. But could it happen? Absolutely.

ANDY SERWER: There's definitely probably the most likely outcome would be a closely decided race one way or the other. What would be your take on a contested election and how it might play out in courts?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: So you know, boy, I mean, probably, like you, Andy, I mean, I remember reading about the 1876 election between Hayes and Tilden, and it just seemed like a different world-- that kind of thing could never happen in the modern era. And yet we do have some real likelihood that there will be a election in which there is a large part of the country thinks that it was stolen.

And I think that we are now so polarized that many people don't have trust in the courts. There are also scenarios in which some states could send electors to the electoral college who it is widely felt do not represent what happened in that state's election and have done that for purely partisan reasons. And I think that is the aspect of it that would worry me the most.

And we don't really have a clear playbook to determine how to address that if that were to happen-- if a state that has very close result were to, because that state, say, has Republican leadership, that then certifies Republican electors. That would be my nightmare. And you know, I must say I was also reporting recently in Oregon, where I grew up, which is a pro-Trump area, and there is-- people are very edgy. They-- there is-- I mean, there is talk. I have friends who were talking about how there is going to be armed revolution. And so for that reason, I hope that it is a decisive election.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. Sort of following on that point, Nick, what about this notion that the president has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power? Is that something Americans should be concerned about?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. It seems to me that one of the things that I've learned, I think, from Trump's presidency is that, sure, we're a nation of laws, but maybe even more so, we're a nation of norms and institutions. And President Trump has systematically undercut those institutions, it seems to me-- like the courts, like law, like the civil service, like the media. And also norms-- and that is one of the basic norms that politicians traditionally have always honored that, you know, I lose, I call up the victor and congratulate him or her.

And so we're seeing retreat from that norm as from so many others. Now, if it's a clear-cut election result, I don't think that much matters. I mean, I don't think that if it's a clear election result, there is any chance that President Trump is able to chain himself to the Resolute Desk and stay in the White House. But if it's a disputed election, boy, that really does matter.

ANDY SERWER: Right. Law enforcement has scuttled some attempts by far right groups that have been targeting Democrats-- Governor Whitmer in Michigan, most notably. Is President Trump to blame for that rhetoric? And also what about social media sites?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: So I don't think that President Trump can be exactly held to blame for people who want to take up arms to kidnap a governor, for example. But I think he can be held accountable for using what seems to me reckless rhetoric that pours gasoline on flames that are already out there that delegitimize elected leaders like Governor Whitmer and that-- you know, in particularly troubled times, it's important for a president to be a soothing presence and try to unite us.

And we have a leader now who is working on dividing us rather than uniting us. And you know, I don't think there is exactly a causal relationship between his rhetoric and some crazy folks in Michigan. But is there a roundabout way in which he escalates their ambitions? I worry about that. And his social media-- you know, years ago, I covered genocide in Myanmar that was very much amplified by Facebook against the Rohingya.

And now I see likewise that Facebook in particular kind of brings out some of the worst of us, and it enables all of us to live in our own cocoon. And instead of leading us to question our prejudices, it leads us to reinforce our prejudices in ways that I think also divide the country. And I think that social media organizations do need to be held accountable as information sources for doing harm to the country that we all share.

ANDY SERWER: You know, these social media platforms are in the news every single day, Nick, trying to mitigate or resolve or figure this out. I mean, just the other day for instance Twitter, with this Hunter Biden story, they prevented users from sharing it and then backtracked. Was that the right call?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Well, it certainly wasn't the right call to first go one way and then go 180 degrees the other way. You know, but I mean, I would have hated to be the CEO of Twitter that day. That's a real-- I mean, that was really a classic really hard call, because it was a report that I think everybody was deeply suspicious of but hadn't been formally disproved.

And how you deal with that is, I think, really troubling. And it's hard for news organizations. We worry about amplifying things that are untrue and then a month later, correcting them. And it's likewise a problem for social media. I kind of thought that Facebook probably handled that the best by acknowledging these doubts and not killing the story, but kind of breaking its momentum. I think that was probably the sensible way to handle it.

ANDY SERWER: I mean, Twitter probably ended up drawing more attention to the story than it would've gotten otherwise. What about if Joe Biden wins, Nick, should he and his administration investigate possible crimes by President Trump and his associates? Or is it better just to move on? Have you thought about that?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: So his administration, the Biden administration, definitely should not investigate crimes by Trump as such. But I think the Southern District of New York, for example, has investigations under way. And I think those, you know, should continue without interference by the political process in the White House.

And so I think that, you know, criminal investigations that are divorced from politics are appropriate. I also think that when this pandemic is over, that it would be useful to have a either bipartisan or nonpartisan National Commission look at what went wrong, at lessons learned, and at what we do to prepare for the next pandemic. Because the one thing we know is that there will be other viruses emerging.

It's probably more likely to be an avian influenza than it is a coronavirus, but there will be others coming along. And we bungled this one, so let's learn lessons.

ANDY SERWER: I want to get back to the pandemic subject that you raised, but another question of politics-- I want to talk to you about "Tightrope" as well. But let me ask you about the GOP, because a lot of people have suggested that the party is, if not in disarray, shrinking without President Trump-- and once President Trump loses, that it will be a shadow of its former self.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: You know, in some ways, what invigorates a party is losing. And so the Republican Party is torn these days because it has elements of the traditional kind of country club Republicans that the Bush family represented, and it has the kind of working class one-time Democrats that Trump doesn't exactly represent, but that he's appealed to. And it has evangelical Christians.

And those groups have very little in common, and they've been very divided under President Trump. I think that if Joe Biden were elected, and especially if he had a clean sweep with the Republicans over the Democratic Senate and House, I think Republicans would again find common cause and outrage at things that a Biden administration did. And I think that, in some ways, losing badly in this election and disavowing Donald Trump would begin to heal some of those divisions in the GOP.

ANDY SERWER: Interesting. I want to ask about "Tightrope." It tells the stories of struggling people in your hometown, Yamhill. Is that how I pronounce it?


ANDY SERWER: Yamhill, Oregon, with sort of a larger story about inequality in America. Why did you feel compelled to tell that story now?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: So my wife Sheryl and I were traveling around the world and covering humanitarian crises abroad, and we would go back periodically to our family farm where my mom still lived. And we saw a humanitarian crisis unfolding right there in working class America-- a quarter of the kids on my old school bus are now dead from drugs, alcohol, and suicide. And that is-- you know, the same thing happened in West Virginia, it happened in northern Maine, it happened in so many parts of this country to the working class-- to the white and black working classes.

And it seemed to me that this was an issue that, frankly, we in the media did not adequately address. I spent a lot of time reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those were important stories. But meanwhile, every three weeks, more Americans were dying in the US of drugs, alcohol, and suicide than died 19 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And just the amount of pain across America, the number of children who are truly struggling and not getting an opportunity-- I think, you know, it's something that we as a country have to face this failure. I also think, frankly, it's a reason that President Trump was elected in 2016. There were many factors that led to his election, but I think one of them was this sense in working class America that they had been betrayed, that a period of upward mobility was over, and that they had-- you know, that it was just kind of a [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] they desperately wanted help and in that context, it's easy to believe somebody who says he's going to bring back manufacturing jobs.

ANDY SERWER: Let's talk about the causes-- technology, globalism, tax cuts, deregulation. All that, and what do we do about it?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Well, I think in the US, I think we're often a little bit too glib in talking about these solely as a function of globalization and technology. And there is no doubt that these are factors. And my friends lost jobs for those reasons. But Canada also faced globalization, also faced technological change-- so did Germany. And in Germany and Canada, you don't see the equivalent of 70,000 people dying of drug overdoses each year. You don't see suicide rates at a 75-year high.

There was something about the way we in the US showed a kind of callous disregard for those who lost their jobs, didn't provide job retraining, didn't provide health care. And so I think that we also have to acknowledge that these are the fruits of 50 years of bad choices that we as a country made.

We often talk about bad choices that individuals make and you know, turning to drugs or alcohol or whatever. And you know, that's real. There's no doubt that those bad choices complicate things. But we as a country also made a lot of really bad choices.

ANDY SERWER: I mean, some of those choices, Nick, are companies in the United States being so proud of the fact that we are the most profitable, we have the lowest headcount, our costs per head are lower than any other countries and the United States. You look at a country like France-- my goodness, they're higher, they're higher, they're higher. But that's the trade-off, isn't it-- that kind of thing?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah, I think that's part of it. And we evolved in a country from-- you know, there's a point of view in the US that the problem is capitalism. And I really don't think that's true. Because from 1945 through about 1980, we had, obviously, a capitalist system that provided very, very strong economic growth, but in an inclusive way. So I don't think the problem is capitalism as such.

But we moved from a kind of stakeholder capitalism to a shareholder capitalism in which it was all about just cutting costs and you know, throwing people overboard in ways that were often good for short term earnings, but not good for society as a whole or for taxpayers. And I think that, you know, it's complicated to try to figure out how to navigate that balance.

I think you could make the case that in the '50s and '60s, US corporations maybe were not aggressive enough in cutting costs. But I think we really went overboard the other direction after the 1970s.

ANDY SERWER: I mean, there's a pendulum effect, right? I mean, of course, the labor unions were strong at that point. And then they became hollowed out and were attacked. And some of those attacks were legitimate. But now it's gone too far-- although, you know, we don't have any manufacturing. So now you'd have to organize all the people at Google, and I don't know what the rest of the people in America who can't work at Google are going to do besides cleaning Motel 6's or something. I mean, it really is a complicated thing, isn't it?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah, it is. But for example, one thing that we look at in "Tightrope" is what happened to autoworkers at Ford Motor Company who were laid off in both Canada and in the US? And so in Detroit and just across the border in Windsor, Ontario, Ford laid off auto workers. On the US side, our policy response was to provide extended unemployment benefits-- provide a monetary stream. On the Canadian side, of course, those laid off auto workers did not lose their health care, so that was a benefit to them.

But also what Ontario really did was emphasize job retraining. And it was telling these guys, OK, you've been a welder for 30 years, but it doesn't look like we need a lot of welding jobs in Ontario. We will need health care workers. And we can put you in an ultrasound operator class on Monday or a nursing class on Monday.

And it turned out basically that that worked, and people were able to shift to growing areas of the economy so that today they and their kids are less likely to be dependent on drugs, and their families fractured.

ANDY SERWER: You offer some other policy solutions in the book-- universal health care, minimum wage hikes. But the two parties are pretty deeply divided on those issues, Nick. So how is there any chance of us getting together here politically to seek those kinds of solutions?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: So I do think that there is a ray of hope here. And so a couple of things-- I'd note that working class Americans, for example, who traditionally voted Republican, on some of the-- I mean, people vote Republican because of sort of cultural issues-- because of gun rights, because of same sex marriage, because of abortion. But if you ask, should the minimum wage be raised? Absolutely they're in favor.

Should there be higher taxes on the wealthy? Absolutely. Should there be bandwidth for all? Again, absolutely. These are very popular. And I think that there is some chance that this election will be a little like the 1932 election that elected Franklin Roosevelt with a huge majority and also flipped the Senate. And it was precisely, I think, because of the failure of Herbert Hoover over four years in the Great Depression that enabled FDR to get a mandate.

And FDR was no revolutionary, but he was practically looking for things that worked. And I think that it is plausible, though not inevitable, that Joe Biden will likewise be elected with a mandate precisely because we've all seen now the cost when we don't have universal health care, when we don't have universal paid sick leave, when we don't have more equal education for America's kids. Maybe there is a path forward to address some of these long term inequities. Andy, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I'm optimistic about that. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I think, no chance.

ANDY SERWER: Well, it says 3 to 2, Nick--


ANDY SERWER: Not counting weekends. So what happens if Donald Trump is re-elected, though? And what happens to our standing in the world? And, boy, I mean, you know, or is it just so much anticipating an answer-- so much liberal hand-wringing that maybe actually what President Trump is looking to do, particularly with China, will make sense?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: I would very much worry about another four years. I think that in general, President Trump-- I mean, presidents are tested when there is a crisis. And for the first three years of this administration, we really didn't have that kind of a crisis. And then, of course, we got COVID, which was a huge crisis.

But I would worry about what happens when there is an incident in the South China Sea between a Chinese ship and a US Naval vessel and the US ship goes down, or China makes moves on Taiwan or North Korea. North Korea, as you know, has been building new missiles and nuclear warheads all this time.

If we resume a path toward war there-- or, you know, Russia messes with Estonia-- we've been kind of lucky that those incidents have not happened. Time is going to run out. And you know, for the same reason that Jim Mattis and HR McMaster and John Kelly and other Trump aides are deeply worried about precisely that kind of crisis, that's kind of my nightmare-- how quickly things could go awry in that kind of global situation.

ANDY SERWER: In China, which has, I guess we can say, done a better job of controlling the coronavirus, Trump's fingerpointing notwithstanding-- the numbers don't lie, I guess-- and the economy seems to be restarting. There's a story about that today in your paper. Does that change the dynamic between the two countries right now?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: One of the dangerous elements in the relationship is that China is full of self-confidence and sees the US as a declining power and sees the US efforts to stand up to China as the enfeebled efforts of this sinking former power to try to hold back the inevitable course of events.

And I think that is a deeply dangerous trajectory. I think that Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, is prone to miscalculation. And I worry a lot that in the case of Taiwan, for example, that they might take steps that they don't necessarily intend to lead to war, but they very quickly escalate. And you know, in some ways, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump are kind of similar. They're both sort of cocky, a little full of themselves, a little prone to bombast. And it can be a dangerous combination.

ANDY SERWER: What will the world look like at some point when Donald Trump is not president? Maybe soon, maybe later-- and will we ever go back, Nick, maybe particularly with regard to the United States?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: So I can't really talk about the eight year-- you know, what happens if President Trump is president for eight years. But I'm more optimistic than a lot of my friends are about what would happen if he is president for four years. I think a lot of people think that he has done irreparable damage to the country, to our institutions.

I'm not sure that that's right. And I was young then, but I do remember the way we were able to heal after Vietnam, after the Nixon presidency. And in some ways after Nixon, because Nixon had mounted this assault on American institutions, that made everybody understand better their importance in the country. And I became a journalist in part because as a kid, I saw Woodward and Bernstein and the role of the press in checking an out-of-control presidency.

I think that it may be that President Trump's assaults on American institutions and norms will leave the country with a better appreciation of how important those norms and institutions are. It's a somewhat optimistic take. I am not sure I would bet on it, but it does seem to me a very plausible outcome.

ANDY SERWER: When you talk about how you got into journalism, that's similar to me. We're the same age, one month apart, and I grew up in Washington, DC having the same instincts and pull in terms of my career. So I hear you. There are some things that are different, though, today. And of course, you would acknowledge that.

One thing, for instance, we talked about wealth and income inequality-- that's part of "Tightrope"-- but that the rich and the super rich and the Silicon Valley and the billionaires, particularly during COVID, inadvertently getting even wealthier than they were before. How can we address this? Or should we?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: I think we should address inequality. But maybe inequality is the wrong framework-- you know, inequality is a word that tends to get liberals focused, but it tends to turn off conservatives. Opportunity is a word that everybody unites around. I think I saw a poll that 97% of Americans agree there should be more opportunity for America's kids. And 97% of Americans don't agree that the world is round. That's a huge consensus.

And so you know, I think the fact that you can predict a child's outcome based on a zip code in which they are born should be a scandal-- the fact that in at least three American counties, life expectancy is shorter than in Cambodia or Bangladesh. That's-- you know, that's not because those kids are showing a lack of personal responsibility, it's because we as a country are showing a lack of personal responsibility. And one of the reasons we wrote "Tightrope" and did this documentary is really an attempt to highlight the need for fundamental changes to provide greater opportunity for kids in ways that not only help those kids, but also restore a better future for the country as a whole.

ANDY SERWER: You know, I love the zip code work that you do. And I saw that you did a tax cheat story comparing this woman in prison to President Trump. And in that audit by zip code thing, where the most audited zip codes are these impoverished county-- the number one in Mississippi with the high level of African-American residents, right?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah, that's right. That's Humphries County, Mississippi. And it has the highest rate of tax audits in the country. And it's a majority African-American county with, I think, a per capita income of $28,000 or something. And the idea that that is where the IRS is focusing its resources-- and meanwhile, if I remember right, only 0.8% of 2018 tax filings of more than $10 million have been audited-- you know, there is something wrong with this picture.

And it reflects an inequality not only of wealth and income, but an inequality of opportunity and an inequality of political power and of a kind of human rights. So I think we need to look at these sort of basic issues of fairness, at who we are. And these are complicated, they're hard, there are no easy policies. But other countries, Canada, manages to largely figure these out-- so does Germany, so does Japan. You know, I think we can do better than we are.

ANDY SERWER: Another hot button topic right now, Nick, is stimulus and what Washington should do to get our economy back on track. Do these checks to Americans work? What's the best way for the government to help us out during the pandemic, you think?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: The fact that we can't manage a new stimulus package when 10% of American households with children now say they don't have enough food in the last week is just unconscionable. And I worry if it doesn't happen before the election, that it won't happen before January either.

We also have troubling indications that suicide is up, that use of drugs is up. One person in "Tightrope" who runs a drug treatment program, she estimated to me that relapses are up 50% because of the pandemic. And so what we have is a pandemic of disease that is now followed by a pandemic of hunger, of school dropouts, of mental health crises, of drug dependency, and of suicide.

And there-- you know, there are no easy ways to address it. But we do know that that early effort in the spring to send checks to homes did seem to make a huge difference. And it also, as best economists can tell, did not seem to impede people returning to jobs. So I would very much like to see a new stimulus package aimed at sending out checks.

ANDY SERWER: And finally, last question, Nick-- you have so much to choose from when you write. I mean, today, you just stare at an infinity-- there's so many subjects that are important. How do you decide what to do? And what are you looking to do, say, over the next five years?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah, I mean, Andy, in our world of journalism, in a sense that when the world falls apart, I mean, it creates this huge buffet for journalists in kind of a tragic way. I look for opportunities to have an impact. And so I don't try to just preach to the choir and people who agree with me, but look for opportunities to either change minds on some issues or to highlight a neglected issue that people haven't focused on and try to project it onto the agenda.

As journalists, I think we can be in the heating business or we can be in the lighting business. And I like to think that I can be in the lighting business and shine that spotlight. And when COVID ends, I'll certainly do more international reporting that I've always done. But I do-- you know, I think of those kids-- that one-quarter of my school bus-- those kids who died unnecessarily and others who are alive but are homeless or addicted or have kids or grandkids.

One of my friends who we wrote about who was in the doc, he died, but he's got 5 kids who were taken away by the state. And I just worry enormously about those kids and about the future of the country that those crises signify. So I'm going to be shining away on that spotlight, and I'm sure you will be too.

ANDY SERWER: Nicholas Kristof, "New York Times" columnist and co-author of the new book "Tightrope." Thanks very much for joining us.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Thank you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: I'm Andy Serwer. You've been watching "Influencers." We'll see you next time.